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Anna Polikarpova and John Neumeier

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Hamburg Ballet's prima ballerina Anna Polikarpova: "Humanity will die if it doesn't go to the theatre".

Izvestya, May 14 2008, Svetlana Naborshchikova http://www.izvestia.ru/culture/article3116194/

On May 26 on the new Opera stage the "Sun Kings" gala concert will be held. The featured attraction will be Anna Polikarpova and Ivan Urban, the acclaimed couple from Hamburg Ballet. At the start of the 1990s the married couple became the first Russian dancers to be invited by John Neumeier to his company. How she then gained the title of Neumeier's muse was the subject when the former Peterburg girl Anna Polikarpova talked with Izvestia.

Question: What struck you most of all on your arrival in Hamburg?

Answer: Everything! In a month I realised so much. I did not speak either German or English, and it was a shock to me that many people in the company spoke five languages. It also struck me how much they worked, and how they worked. Simultaneously they were rehearsing Nutcracker, Requiem and Cinderella, all absolutely different in style. And then Mats Ek arrived to do "Meinungslose Weiden" (Spaces without meaning). I could not even bring myself to repeat after him, and I was very surprised when I saw my name on the first cast list.

Q: Are you comfortable with life in Germany?

A: I like how everything is in order, disciplined - you know what can be done and what can't. But sometimes it seems that most people have in their heads only business plans. Those who put the Euro first, they're immediately obvious. They're like zombies, all identical in their suits and ties. Lots of people don't know where to find opera. To me this seemed amazing. How can one live without theatre? You have to go to the theatre, even only once a year. Otherwise humanity will die.

Q: Does John Neumeier seem to you a despot or a father-figure?

A: He's a dictator. He holds everything in his fist. If it weren't so, the company would not have endured 34 years. I had intended to leave after two years of work, but he held me on -- gave me the rank of first soloist, and I began to dance literally everything. I simply could not refuse. Usually people don't last so long. They leave, or even change their profession. I was used to the idea that in the Mariinsky artists are there until their pension, and at first couldn't consider any other way -- Where else would they go, and why? Then I understood that with him people can just fizzle out, lost heart. There is absolutely no time for private life, let alone children. Right now, not one of the people in the company has children. For John only work exists. For that it's necessary to sacrifice everything -- he won't have it any other way. If you don't want it, go to another company.

Q: How do you relax after such effort?

A: We just sit at home. Ivan and I are very domestic, we rarely go out. In a restaurant you can't sit in front of the TV with your dinner!

Q: Recently in Moscow you lit up his production of 'The Seagull'. How organically they depicted the character of Arkadina as a ballerina.

A: To start with, she was to be a dramatic actress, as in Chekhov. But on the very next day, John announced: "You'll be a ballerina, like Anna Pavlova". It turns out, that the day before he was sitting by himself at home, which in fact is filled with ballet antiquities. Some little thing fell down -- and it was Pavlova's fan. John explained that in this way she herself had given him a sign.

Q: Last year in Moscow he said that he intends to put on 'Anna Karenina', because he continually gets signals to do this. He also said that in the role of Anna he saw Uliyana Lopatkina and you.

A: How interesting . With us John never outlines his plans. This season we revived 'Otello'. He gave the part of Desdemona to a girl in the corps de ballet, even though I really wanted this role. But to ask or argue with him is useful-- John sees it thus, and that's it. Next season he wants to put on 'Arminde's Pavilion', 'Sylvia', and to do Nijinsky's 'Rite of Spring'. I just hope that I will survive until 'Anna'. Time marches on, and I don't intend to dance till 50.

Q: What will you do?

A: I want children, I'd be interested in coaching, and I would very much like to act in movies. I've already had some experience in Leningrad. In a film called 'The Dogs' Feast' I played an inactive ballerina. The director Leonid Menaker saw my photo in a card index-- I was photographed for Lenfilm in the role of a girl in 'Vaganovka' -- and he said "Find me that face". I was stunned by the way Sergei Shakurov and Natalia Gundareva worked. Not a trace of star vanity and a great desire to help me, a slip of a girl...

Q: If it's not a secret, what did your husband give you for your last birthday?

A: Oh, this was so funny! I saw, myself, this Balenciaga handbag, and Ivan got it for me. I was in ecstasy, I started to thank him, when he said "Open the bag." And there appeared a Cartier ring! He always knows what I would like.

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Thanks for translating that interview, Delibes !

I wonder how John Neumeier reacted to her comments about him being a "dictator" (even if it's partly a positive comment, as she implies that it's the reason for the company's long existence).

I find it quite striking that no dancer there has children, as it generally isn't the case now in most ballet companies... (However, from what I've read, in Germany working mothers often are frowned upon, far more than in most other European countries, so perhaps it has an influence too).

By the way, since she says "I want children", and she was born in 1970, I guess that we can expect that her career will end in the very next few years ?

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I find it quite striking that no dancer there has children, as it generally isn't the case now in most ballet companies... (However, from what I've read, in Germany working mothers often are frowned upon, far more than in most other European countries, so perhaps it has an influence too).

If I'm not mistaken, dancers at the Hamburg Ballet don't have permanent contracts or the sort of benefits that would go along with them. Apparently, they go from year to year on annual contracts, which would certainly discourage taking (unpaid) maternity leave.

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I find it quite striking that no dancer there has children, as it generally isn't the case now in most ballet companies... (However, from what I've read, in Germany working mothers often are frowned upon, far more than in most other European countries, so perhaps it has an influence too).

If I'm not mistaken, dancers at the Hamburg Ballet don't have permanent contracts or the sort of benefits that would go along with them. Apparently, they go from year to year on annual contracts, which would certainly discourage taking (unpaid) maternity leave.

Oh, I didn't know that they had such contracts. It surely doesn't encourage people to take maternity leave... I didn't know that such contracts were possible for German laws.

For the sake of comparison: in France, it would be illegal for a company to hire someone on one-year contracts for many successive years, after some time (I don't exactly how long) the worker has a right to have his/her contract transformed automatically into a permanent contract... Also, if an unemployed mother-to-be has worked for a sufficient number of hours in the last 6 months before the pregnancy, she receives some money (paid for by the health care system) during her maternity leave.

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Isn't that the way most US ballet company contracts are? Coming up for renewal once a year. But at least one does build unemployment or disability benefits during each year of employment.

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Well, I'd have expected the German labor laws to be more protective of employees than the US ones... (e.g. mothers in Germany are entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, vs 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave in the US, and also can take up to 3 years of job-protected leave...)

But sorry for turning this discussion into a discussion about labor laws in Germany :-)

I only saw Anna Polikarpova in a video of "The Stone Flower" filmed many years ago, but really found her lovely in that work...

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From the Summer 2006 edition of Dance International magazine:

Unlike some European companies, Hamburg Ballet has no job permanency, renewing contacts annually.

I remember being deeply surprised that a European company employed this "American" system.

I suppose that most Hamburg Ballet dancers wait until their performing days are over before having children. Elizabeth Loscavio has had two since retiring.

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Thanks for the reference, volcanohunter.

I guess that perhaps dancers jobs are somewhat special as far as German labor laws are concerned, because from what I've read on some official web sites, for "normal" jobs, temporary contracts can't last more than 2 years, and such a contract can't be renewed with the same employer and worker (it has to be transformed into a permanent contract)...

I guess that female Hamburg Ballet dancers have either to be confident in their fertility in their late 30s and early 40s, or to plan to retire somewhat early...

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